Do you turn to Google search, or a scholarly database, or another online reference? Or do you turn first to your personal library of books, notes, papers, URLs, and screenshots?
Your answer to those questions should direct your approach to collecting and managing references of any sort.
If your first impulse is to turn to your own curated collections of information, and you’re able to locate what you need when you want it, then whatever system you’re currently using is probably a good one.
But with the near omnipresence of digital reference material, many of us no longer turn first to our own collections. Yet we were trained, explicitly or implicitly, to collect and save large amounts of information.
In Scott Belky’s recent book Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality, he argues that most people spend too much time collecting notes of various kinds, and goes so far as to say:
References obstruct your bias toward action.
Now, the scholar and archivist in me bristles a bit at that, but I think he’s right in pointing out that what he calls “Action Steps,” or what David Allen would call “next actions,” can easily be lost in the midst of notes and reference material for a project.
Many times, we hold onto an email, the URL of a website, or the PDF of a journal article, as a kind of emblem of an action we intend to take: we plan or hope to someday respond to the email, browse the website, or read the article. If those actions are important, then they should be captured and put into your action list. Otherwise you’re just piling up digital clutter.
Asking yourself why you’re holding on to something, when you expect to refer to it again, and how you’re going to find it when you need it can help you streamline your reference system. (Tools like Evernote, Catch (formerly 3Banana) and DevonThink can help you tag, manage, and easily retrieve those references.)
Sure, hard drive and cloud storage is faster and cheaper than ever; sure, we have better search tools; but if you just keep everything, then you lose sight of what’s most important.
Today, with so much information all around us, there’s less and less that you really need to keep yourself. Focus on the important stuff and let go of the rest.
What have you been keeping that you could let go of? Let us know in the comments!
[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user Niklas Bildhauer]Return to Top